Thursday last week, my sisters and I headed off to see the local rendition of the musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Being clueless about this musical, we were even surprised to learn that tickets were restricted to adults only.
The play, written by Australian director and writers Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, has also been portrayed previously on film. Prior to the show though, the only notion of Priscilla my sisters and I had was based on the colorful billboards showing off a trio of drag queens in fabulous costumes.
As the story unfolds, the three friends drive off in a pink bus, aptly named Priscilla, to a distant town called Alice Springs.
Along the way, the trio meets new adventures and misadventures, from sleazy bars and rustic farm homes, to a Filipina mail-order bride.
Every exploit is then captured in an iconic ’80s classic song, which included all-time favorites (songs that make for last song syndrome) from the likes of Donna Summer, Madonna, and Kylie Minogue.
The production did not lack on production value with appealing costumes and stage lighting.
In the local version, Jon Santos took the role of transgender “Les Girl” Bernice. Jon’s consistent dramatic transformation as a well-bred grand dame is truly noteworthy. From Bernice’s well-poised stance, and her very demure emotional reactions to events in the play, Jon kept the character’s nuances consistent throughout the play. Even more, Jon Santos donned one timeless dress after another, accessorized with pearls, a Birkin-looking handbag to boot, and stylish heels—subtle details that made Bernice more real.
Leo Valdez, whose thespian reputation from Miss Saigon is well-recognized, meanwhile played the role of Mitzi (a.k.a. Tick). Leo’s vocal range undoubtedly remains unchanged. Mitzi is a divorcee, who has kept an amicable friendship with his ex-wife, is the most secretive among the three. With a son born from his early marriage, Mitzi feels uncertain about how to approach his son.
But the real surprise among the cast was Red Concepcion’s portrayal of multi-talented, yet vulgar, and unflappable Felicia. Felicia’s role was probably the most exhausting one in the play, with the grandest musical segments devoted to this character.
And to top it all, Red managed to sing the Kylie Minogue numbers with such aplomb.
The play Priscilla brought forward undertones of social taboos in the ’90s—of homophobia, mail-order brides, and transgender choices. The depiction of the stereotypical Filipina mail-order bride—crass, ill-bred, and loud mouthed—is frankly quite disconcerting. For a Filipino audience, the character does hit very close to home.
Although delivered with comedic flair, the social reality of many young women turned brides and sent off to the great Australian outback is still quite common. Then there too is the interpretation of how homosexuals are at the receiving end of insults and discrimination in parts where such is considered a deviance. Yet, at the end, the characters realize that kindness and acceptance can still be unexpectedly found in the oddest places and among true friends.
Perhaps the undeniable worth of theater and the arts is its inherent ability to portray social realities, in subtle and even comedic flair. Luckily, for one evening, not only were we treated to a playlist of our favorite ’80s songs, but to an impressive performance from our most promising stage artists as well.